Leading Wisely

Listen to Ricardo Semler's Podcast

Isaac Getz is a speaker, professor, and author who has written extensively about liberating companies - organizations who are freeing their workers to do something completely new and different. He has studied CEOs of close to a hundred of companies on three continents and has found that, at least in France, there is a growing acceptance of the corporate liberation movement. Isaac talks about the growing adoption of complete freedom- and responsibility-based organization and also discusses what key role leadership has in enabling these radical transformations.

Ricardo Semler (RS):

I would say that we are on the cusp of change. In this age of technology and information, we’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel where there’s the possibility of an age of wisdom for organizations. But, it still seems very far away. If we agree that the benefits of a more liberated structure are so obvious, then why do so few companies actually adopt this approach?

Isaac Getz (IG):

Right now, in France and French-speaking countries, I personally know probably about 250 companies that we would call “liberated corporations”. So, that small number is growing by the day. Not by the week. Not by the month. That number is growing by the day. So, that's where we stand now in France and it's not by chance. It’s taken the effort of several hundred people over the last three years.

We started with the same question: Why is there such a small amount of these companies? Our answer was different many other people who asked this question. We said that it’s about leadership. We believe that the right question is not, “Why can’t every company become more democratic or liberated?” The more important question is, “Can every leader become a liberating leader and how can we help them?” That was our starting point. Today, essentially for free, there is an ecosystem in France that seeks to help any business leader who wants to start corporate liberation. And there are dozens and dozens of things that we do for them and I think this is one of the explanations for this growing movement in France.


You seem to have identified a few hundred companies that are doing this, but in the bigger picture, it’s still less than 1% of the total organizations on the plant. Is there a breaking point where this movement breaks through and starts to really grow?


Two years ago we looked at the dynamics of what we might call “revolutions” or “social movements” and we found some research. It says that if you can involve 7% of the target population - and that this 7% contains opinion leaders - the whole population will start adopting that idea. For our purposes, we said that our opinion leaders in France are companies that have more than 500 employees. There are 2,000 companies in France that fulfil that requirement, so that means that we need 150 companies to enter corporate liberation. We believe that once we reach that number the whole French economy will collapse into liberation. We have examples of that. We are moving close to meeting that mark for chain stores. They are falling into this movement one-by-one. So, this is our plan. We can’t guarantee that it’s going to succeed, but I can tell you that every month we have one or two large companies entering the corporate liberation movement.


If you are liberating, you are liberating from something. I would suppose that you’re liberating people from the autocracy - from a life caught in a box. What are the parameters that tell you that an organization is now considered “liberated management”?


One of the things that we say everywhere is that corporate liberation is not an intellectual issue - it's an emotional issue. It’s visceral. Either you feel it in your heart or you don't. If you don't, then don't go there. If you’re looking for some data that liberated companies are better than traditional companies, then just don't go there. So, we know that those who did go there are there for the right reasons.

Another thing is that I have these CEOs from medium-sized companies writing me and saying, “I read your book. I've seen you on TV and I now want to enter liberation.” I write them back and say, “This is great news. Did you solve your ego issue? Yours or Best Regards, Isaac.” And sometimes they come back and they say, “Yes, you're right. I have this issue. I can't prevent myself from telling people when I have a better idea than them…” Then I ask them, “Do you think that’s an obstacle? Do you think that you want to work on that?” If they say yes to all of those, then I ask them if they would like me to provide a couple of coaches that can help them to solve their ego issues.

Again, this is not an organizational issue. It's a leadership issue. So the question is, “Who are the leaders who will carry this project because they cannot live without it. They can't exist without it.”


You’ve transformed this into a filter in which you say, “Well, you have to look at yourselves and see whether you're ready for this change or not.” But there's always a certain amount of elitism and there's a certain amount of institutional arrogance when we tell people, “I don't think you're ready for this. Go away. Go do something else.” When that one CEO sits in front of you and says, “I believe or I don't believe in it”, you know that you have an opportunity to transform a company. If you don’t assist, then you're throwing away the opportunities for 20,000 people because of that one guy who didn’t quite get it. How do you deal with that?


I'm kind of a positive guy in the sense that I'm trying to see what works and where it works. I’m just trying to work with people who want to go forward and I kind of forget about those who don't. For me, it's not my consciousness issue. It's the CEO’s consciousness issue, right? Let's say that there is a guy that has 20,000 people and, by making some changes, he can radically transform the way these people go through their lives - and also how their families and communities go through their lives - and he's not doing that. He is dooming their lives and his company is doomed, too. But what can we do for him? I can't do anything. He is on a Titanic mission. He's going to sink like Kodak. You observe it, but you can't do it. He has to do it. If he doesn't understand that, then you just wave your hands and that's it. You go to work with somebody who can.

After working with both small and large companies, it became very evident to us that the transformation should happen, and may happen, at the local level - the level of a business unit. At this point, the role of the CEO of a large corporation is not to be a liberating leader - it doesn’t happen at his level. We need some kind of benevolent attitude where he says to his business unit head, “If you really think you need this liberation, then I trust you enough to go and do it.” That's the minimum that we need from a corporate CEO. For example, we see this from the CEO of Airbus. He is supportive of liberation –although he doesn’t tell his business unit heads they must do it. If you come to him and you say, “In my plant, I'm assembling parts for Airbus 380 and I want to go and make some changes,” then he'll say, “Okay.” You see the CEO of Michelin invite everybody to participate - it’s not an order, it’s an invitation. It’s on a voluntary basis.

So, that’s how we work. If you don’t know or don’t want it, then that’s okay. But there are enough who do want it and so we have our hands full trying to help them.

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